If you’re looking for the answers to those questions, you’re in the right place.
In this easy-to-read article, you’ll get all the info you need about these two popular supplements without requiring any previous knowledge.
- EAAs (essential amino acids) are the amino acids you have to get from your diet. BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) are three of these essential amino acids.
- BCAA supplements don’t help you build muscle. You need all the EAAs, not just the BCAAs. BCAAs does have other potential benefits, like improving your fatigue tolerance and making you less sore after workouts.
- EAA supplements build muscle, but you get as good or better an effect from regular food or a protein powder.
Proteins: The Building Blocks of Your Body
Proteins are nutrients and building blocks for your body. For your muscles, organs, skin, tendons and ligaments, and intestines, too. Also, you use protein to make enzymes and hormones. All the cells in your body need protein to work properly.
If you remove the water and the fat from your body, the rest is primarily proteins.
You need to get enough protein from your diet. Otherwise, you won’t get the gains you want.
Amino Acids, What Are They?
So, the protein you eat builds your body. Protein, in turn, is made up of amino acids. There are twenty of them. Amino acids are tiny building blocks, too, connected in chains that form proteins.
When you eat a protein-rich meal, your digestive system breaks these chains down into free amino acids. They are then absorbed into your bloodstream from the intestine and travel to places where your body needs new cells constructed or old ones repaired.
Amino acids come in two categories: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids.
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
The essential amino acids are the ones your body can’t make on its own. You need to get them from the food you eat.
There are nine essential amino acids, and they all have complicated names. They are, in alphabetical order:
In addition to those, there is an amino acid called arginine. That one is essential for children. That means that kids need to get arginine from food, but your adult body can produce it as needed.
We often abbreviate Essential Amino Acids as EAAs.
Non-Essential Amino Acids (NEAAs)
Since the protein you eat comprises 20 amino acids, and 9 of these are essential, that leaves 11 more amino acids. These are non-essential amino acids. You can make them in your body, so you don’t necessarily have to get them from food.
The list of non-essential amino acids looks like this:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
Even if you don’t need to get these amino acids from your diet to stay healthy and build muscle, you get them anyway, whether you want to or not. You get them all, often in abundance, from all the protein you eat.
Non-Essential Amino Acids are abbreviated as NEAAs.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
There are three branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs. There is a lot of confusion about the difference between them and EAAs. Let’s untangle the amino acid mess.
What’s the Difference Between BCAAs and EAAs?
There is none. BCAAs are EAAs.
Does that sound weird and complicated? It’s not. It’s much simpler than it might sound.
BCAAs aren’t any other amino acids than those you saw in the list of essential amino acids earlier. They are simply three of those: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
These three amino acids are both essential and branched-chain. Branched-chain mean that they have a chemical structure that makes them look like little trees with branches.
“BCAA” is just a way to describe the structure of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are just three of the nine essential amino acids but with a unique structure that looks like a canopy of branches. The other essential amino acids don’t have this branch-looking structure.
EAAs, BCAAs, and Your Muscles
If you have read this far, you already know that you only need to get the essential amino acids from your diet. That holds for building muscle as well.
You require all amino acids to build new muscle mass, but your body can make the non-essential ones as needed. Studies show that X grams of essential amino acids build the same amount of muscle as X grams of essential amino acids plus the same amount of non-essential amino acids.1
The non-essential amino acids in a protein-rich meal make no difference.
Even disregarding the fact that your body can make non-essential amino acids when it needs them, you get plenty of them from all the protein you eat. You don’t need to think about the non-essential amino acids or wonder how you’re going to get enough of them.
How Your Muscles Use Protein and Amino Acids to Grow Bigger
When you eat protein, it breaks down into free amino acids in your gut and intestines. From there, they enter your bloodstream. When a lot of amino acids suddenly appear in your blood, your body thinks, “Building material for my muscles! Better get to work!”2
When you use a BCAA supplement or an EAA supplement, the amino acids are readily available. Your body doesn’t have to break them down first. You absorb them faster than you would the same amino acids from a regular meal.
The process of creating new muscle is called muscle protein synthesis.
BCAAs Trigger Muscle Protein Synthesis
When many amino acids enter your blood in a short amount of time, they turn on signals telling your body to build muscle.
However, not all amino acids are responsible for this effect. The branched-chain amino acids, BCCAs, are the crucial ones.
Leucine, in particular, is the amino acid that triggers the entire process. If too little leucine shows up in your blood, not much of anything happens.
All protein you eat contains BCAAs. If you get 2.5–3 grams of leucine from a protein-rich meal, you stimulate muscle protein synthesis as much as possible.3
Whey protein is the protein with the most leucine. About 25 grams of whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis maximally. Other proteins give you a little less leucine per 100 grams, which means you need more of it to get the same muscle-building effect.
Animal proteins, like eggs, meat, poultry, dairy, and fish, provide more essential amino acids, including BCAAs and leucine, than plant-based proteins.
For example, you need to eat 38 grams of pea protein, 40 grams of soy protein, or a whopping 54 grams of hemp protein to get the same anabolic effect as you get from 25 grams of whey protein.
Amino Acids From Food vs. Supplements
You never need to get your amino acids from amino acid supplements. The protein in your food contains all the amino acids: EAAs, BCAAs, and non-essential amino acids. Using a protein supplement also gives you all the 20 amino acids, including the BCAAs.
BCAAs vs. EAAs: Muscle Protein Synthesis
So you’ve decided you want an amino acid supplement to help you build muscle. What’s the best option? BCAAs or EAAs? Let’s find out!
When you take a BCAA supplement, you start a series of signals telling your body to build muscle.
However, things pretty much stop with those signals.
To build muscle, you need all the EAAs, along with the eleven non-essential amino acids. Your body can create the non-essential ones, but not the six missing EAAs.
That means that BCAAs alone do not stimulate muscle protein synthesis. At least not to any particular degree.
When you take BCAAs on an empty stomach, you stimulate muscle protein synthesis a little, but only 20 % more than tap water.
That’s not a lot. It’s about half the effect you’d get from whey protein providing the same amount of BCAAs.
Even though BCAAs, with leucine as the flag bearer, turns muscle protein synthesis on, you need the other essential amino acids for something to happen.
Since you’re not giving your body all the building blocks it needs, it has to make do with re-cycling amino acids from muscle breakdown to create new muscle tissue.
If your body doesn’t have access to any other amino acids, you can’t build more muscle than you break down. At best, you only recycle the amino acids you already have available.
That’s all very well, but you probably bought the BCAA supplement to boost your workouts and build more muscle, not just maintain what you have.
BCAA Supplements Along With Regular Protein
But what if you take the BCAAs along with another protein source providing the other essential amino acids?
Unfortunately, that won’t work either.
If you get BCAAs (read: leucine) from a regular protein source in amounts that stimulate muscle protein synthesis decently, nothing happens if you add even more BCAAs. You already have enough leucine. And enough is just that: enough.
What if you don’t get enough BCAAs from a meal? If you eat something low in protein? It feels logical that adding a BCAA supplement would boost muscle protein synthesis in that case.
Unfortunately, BCAAs don’t help you there either.
Doing so leads to competition between the BCAA supplement and the amino acids from the meal.
The result? Lower levels of amino acids in the bloodstream than expected and no extra effect from the BCAA supplement.
As you can see in the image above, pure leucine works where all three BCAAs don’t. You can add leucine to a meal low in protein to boost muscle protein synthesis.
But then why not just eat more protein?
In any case, BCAA supplements don’t build muscle or increase muscle protein synthesis the way supplement manufacturers would like you to believe they do. Not on an empty stomach and as part of a meal.
Unlike supplements providing only the three branched-chain amino acids, a supplement with all nine essential amino acids works just fine. Numerous controlled studies show that beyond the shadow of a doubt.6
After all, the essential amino acids are the amino acids you need to build muscle, and you get all of them from an EAA supplement. An EAA supplement includes the BCAAs, for that matter.
If you want to use an EAA supplement, go right ahead. Ten grams of EAAs stimulate your muscle protein synthesis optimally.7
That said, you can eat regular protein-rich meals or use a protein supplement instead.
Those options also give you all the EAAs and BCAAs you need. And you get the non-essential amino acids as well, meaning your body doesn’t have to spend energy making them.
BCAAs vs. EAAs: Muscle Breakdown
Your muscle protein synthesis must exceed your muscle protein breakdown if you want to build muscle.
Supplement manufacturers claim that taking BCAAs or EAAs helps reduce protein breakdown. However, no evidence supports that. No studies even investigate the effects of BCAAs on muscle protein breakdown after a workout.
Such claims are speculation based on studies on whole-body protein breakdown, meaning all the protein in your body, including your organs and skin, not your muscles specifically.
Also, trying to minimize your muscle protein breakdown might not be a good thing. Likely, muscle breakdown is an essential part of building muscle. It removes damaged proteins and creates better conditions for your muscles to adapt to your training and become bigger and stronger.8 9 10
In other words, even if BCAA and EAA supplements reduce muscle breakdown – and there is no evidence that they do – it might not be desirable to do so. Focus on stimulating muscle protein synthesis and let muscle breakdown handle itself.
BCAAs vs. EAAs: Taste
BCAA supplements taste better than EAA supplements. It takes a lot more to mask the taste of the complete spectrum of EAAs than just the BCAAs. That’s probably only of the major factors behind the rise in popularity of BCAAs in the early 2000s. Today, supplement companies can make EAAs take ok, but the difference is still noticeable.
Unflavored EAA- and BCAA-supplements have a rather terrible taste. “But my BCAA supplement tastes great and refreshing,” you might say. No, your BCAA supplement tastes like sewage. That refreshing taste is the taste of enough flavoring agents and sweeteners to hide the actual taste of the amino acids.
When flavored, as is the case with commercial BCAA supplements, most people can find a taste they find pleasant.
BCAAs vs. EAA: FAQ
You ask, we answer.
Do BCAAs and EAAs Count As Protein?
You can count a complete EAA supplement as part of your protein intake when it comes to building muscle. Of course, you don’t get any of the additional nutrients a regular protein source gives you.
BCAAs don’t work on their own, and you count a supplement towards your daily protein intake.
Do Amino Acid Supplements Help Build Muscle Better Than Protein From Foods or Protein Shakes?
No, no evidence consuming amino acids supplements help you build more muscle than getting the same amount of them from food. The opposite might be true, as demonstrated by studies where older adults build more whey protein muscle protein than EAAs.11 Whole foods with many nutrients might boost the anabolic effects of the amino acids compared to the amino acids alone.12
Are BCAAs and EAAs Safe?
The long-term effects of massive daily amino acid doses are unknown, but no evidence suggests anything harmful from moderate amounts. Stay within the manufacturer’s recommended doses, and you should have no cause for worry.
When Should I Drink EAAs?
The best bet is most likely to drink your EAAs after you have worked out. If nothing else, plenty of studies support such a protocol, while only a few look at the effects of pre-exercise amino acids.
Also, you’re probably not in a rush. You don’t have to drink your amino acids the moment you put your dumbbells down. Your total daily protein intake is far more critical than timing your EAA intake to the minute.15
I’m on a Low-Calorie Diet. Are EAAs a Good Choice For Me?
Yes, an EAA supplement might be a good idea if you’re on a rigorously strict diet where every calorie counts. Since you get the same muscle-building effect from 10 grams of EAAs as from 20–25 grams of protein, you save a dozen or so calories there. As you probably remember, the non-essential amino acids don’t provide any additional anabolic effect.
Can I Drink EAAs or BCAAs While Fasting?
Nope. They will kick you out of your fast for sure. A loophole in FDA regulations allows supplement manufacturers to claim that their amino acid supplements are calorie-free.16 However, any such claims are lies. Amino acids provide you with calories, just like they do when part of regular proteins.17
Are BCCAs a Waste of Money?
If we’re talking about building muscle, then yes, most likely.
However, BCAAs could benefit your training in other ways.
- By taking BCAAs before you train, they reduce fatigue during your workout and might allow you to exercise for longer before exhaustion.
- For the most part, there are few reasons to choose an amino acid supplement instead of a protein supplement or a protein-rich meal.
- As long as you get enough protein from your regular diet, there is no evidence that adding an amino acid supplement will do much of anything.
- You build just as much muscle from X grams of essential amino acids from those options as from X grams of essential amino acids from an EAA supplement.
- Don’t fall for marketing telling you otherwise.
- BCAAs might offer some other benefits, like reducing muscle soreness and providing energy for your workout, but they don’t cut it for building muscle.
- EAA supplements work, but don’t expect any better results from a protein shake.
- Protein Intake: How Much Protein Should You Eat per Day?
- Building Muscle as You Age: Protein Needs for the Older Lifter
- Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Which is Better?
- Whey Protein: The Complete Guide to the Most Popular Protein Supplement for Strength Athletes
Want to learn more about dietary supplements? Which ones are worth your money, and which are questionable or useless? Check our StrengthLog’s Supplement Guide, our free guide where I review 26 of the most popular supplements.
- The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 132, Issue 10, October 2002, Pages 3219S–3224S. Regulation of Muscle Protein by Amino Acids.
- Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011 Jan; 14(1): 83–88. Essential Amino Acid Sensing, Signaling, and Transport in the Regulation of Human Muscle Protein Metabolism.
- Nutrients. 2016 Apr; 8(4): 181. Protein Considerations for Optimising Skeletal Muscle Mass in Healthy Young and Older Adults.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 14, Article number: 30 (2017). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?
- Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2021 Mar 18;31(3):292-301. Isolated Leucine and Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation for Enhancing Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review.
- Front. Nutr., 10 September 2019 Maximizing Post-exercise Anabolism: The Case for Relative Protein Intakes.
- J Physiol. 2012 Mar 1; 590(Pt 5): 1049–1057. Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise.
- Nutrients 2018, 10(2), 180; Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training.
- Skelet Muscle. 2016; 6: 16. The beneficial role of proteolysis in skeletal muscle growth and stress adaptation.
- Sports Med. 2018; 48(Suppl 1): 53–64. Assessing the Role of Muscle Protein Breakdown in Response to Nutrition and Exercise in Humans.
- Nutrition Research Volume 28, Issue 10, October 2008, Pages 651-658. Whey protein ingestion in elderly persons results in greater muscle protein accrual than ingestion of its constituent essential amino acid content.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 6, December 2017, Pages 1401–1412. Consumption of whole eggs promotes greater stimulation of postexercise muscle protein synthesis than consumption of isonitrogenous amounts of egg whites in young men.
- Am J Physiol. 1999 Apr;276(4):E628-34. Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids.
- Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug;281(2):E197-206. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 5. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?
- ]CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 52, Issue 5, November 1990, Pages 770–776. Energy content of diets of variable amino acid composition.